It is a strange feeling indeed when the chanting of obscure Latin spells are the most comprehendible moments in J.K. Rowlings’ bloated, charmless sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Where Rowling and director David Yates’ first instalment of their cinematic universe (the Potter-verse or Wizard World) had enough genuine spark, warmth and intrigue to cover over Warner Brothers’ naked attempt to capitalise on the Potter brand, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an over-indulgent mess that even the Potter-initiated might struggle with.
Having escaped from the custody of the American Ministry of Magic, dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is on the rise- his brand of ‘pure blood’ wizard domination over the non-magical humans attempting to gain a foothold in late 1920’s Paris. Concerned with the potential of a schism in the Wizarding World, professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) secretly employs his former student and magic-zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). However, Newt is more than reluctant to Dumbledore’s request, only agreeing when forced to help his former friends locate a strange morphic creature that needs shelter from Grindelwald’s allure. Newt crosses paths once again with Auror Tina (Katherine Waterstone), sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and her Muggle fiancee, Jacob (Dan Fogler) on this mission while also confronting the knotty relationship between himself, his older brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and his fiancee Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), a conflicting and conflicted figure from Newt’s past. The zoologists’ struggle to commit both personally and politically is tested when the dividing lines of war are slowly being drawn. All he loves, including the many fauna and flora that he encounters along the way, are suddenly in grave danger…
Rowling and Yates’ attempts to build and deepen the lore of the Potter-verse are undeniably committed. Nearly every frame is packed with references to the preceding mythos of the Wizarding World. Stuart Craig’s production design is a breathtaking spectacle, with beautiful intricacy given to the creatures, locations and costumes. These fit perfectly into Yates’ vision of the later brooding Potter entries, while also infused creatively with period and place (the subterranean art nouveau aesthetic of the French Ministry as inspired as Fantastic Beasts’ Art-Deco American Ministry). However, like George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, the frame is filled with such a density of elements and effects that nothing appears to sit still. It’s overburdened with magical bursting, remaking, fixing, collapsing, etc. Not only does the sheer wave of SFX overwhelm us, but it’s coupled with the screenplay’s heavy reliance on trivial exposition and callbacks. The tone swings wildly between its self-deprecating humour (‘Her eyes are like a salamander’ Newt innocently remarks of Tina in an eye-rolling recurring joke with Jacob), quirky action hijinks (a feather-duster being a novel way to catch a dragon) and unnerving disquiet (highlighting that issues of prejudice, power and assault are even more pronounced in the pre-Harry Potter Wizarding world). Eventually after much chasing of trans-dimensional dragons and identity-confused MacGuffins, the film does rally together on a rare moment of clarity: a resonant political warning about a world growing more divisive, insular and violent (arising from the film’s setting in 1920’s Europe). But after so much guff and bluster, this simplistic liberal handwringing (via tortured analogy) from Rowling about our current political milieu is hardly worth the effort.
Under the weight of world-building and the computer-animation, the performances are merely serviceable here. Putting aside the controversy of his problematic casting, Depp doesn’t convince as Grindelwald. A shifting Mortdecai accent, silly blonde hairdo (wonder who that refers to?), and Bond-villain-esque heterochromia (apparently Depp’s idea) that it beggars belief he could convince anyone to join his cause (although the same could be said for the unsubtly sinister Voldemort). They should have let Colin Farrell keep the role. The cast of characters introduced in the first Fantastic Beasts feel extremely instrumental compared to their first outing. Redmayne does his affected socially awkward schtick again (less lovable, more predictable this time round) while in contrast, Waterstone’s Tina is relegated to a rather bland lover’s tiff. Trying to cram in Turner (forgettable), Kravitz (convincingly maudlin yet underdeveloped), Law (charmingly suave but clearly held in the wings for later entries), Claudia Kim (a superfluous addition whose casting has caused more trouble than this meagre role even warrants) and Brontis Jodorowsky as a heavily-made up Ebenezer Scrooge (sorry, Nicolas Flamel) is unbelievably excessive. Like the audience these actors are engulfed in the staggering volume of Potter-verse content that hampers the engaging, complex and heartfelt adventure that Crimes of Grindelwald would like to be. Little moments wash up here and there for our interest or sympathy: Lestrange’s traumatic upbringing; Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald; Newt’s estrangement from his family. But they are soon whizzed away to the next character, next set-piece or next plot device.
Which is ironic as so much of The Crimes of Grindelwald is about treading water for the rumoured three instalments to follow. Much like the Wizarding rally at the climax , Potter fans are now finding themselves picking sides over this divisive entry. For this attendee however, I’m with Newt at the start of this magical mishap – decidedly disinterested.